Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher, the only Prime Minister to win three terms in office – two of the most important female figures in 20th century British history. The two women held weekly audiences, as is customary between the Queen and her Prime Minister, but how well did these two remarkable women get on?
Margaret Thatcher was Britain’s first female Prime Minister, elected in 1979 to a country with rampant inflation and mass unemployment. Her policies were drastic, increasing indirect taxes and reducing expenditure on public services: they caused much controversy, but were, at least in the short term, highly effective.
The introduction of the ‘right to buy’ scheme in 1980, which allowed up to 6 million people to buy their houses from the local authority, resulted in a massive transfer of public property into private ownership – some would argue for the better, others that it has helped fuel the council house crisis of the modern world.
Similarly, the Conservatives’ poll tax (a precursor in many respects to today’s council tax) resulted in the Poll Tax Riots in 1990.
Her legacy continues to divide opinion today, particularly with regards to the long term cost-benefit of her hard-right economic policies.
She saw herself as a radical: a moderniser, someone who broke with tradition both literally and ideologically. Unlike her predecessors: all men, all relatively socially conservative regardless of their political allegiance, she was unafraid to make big changes and unashamed of her ‘provincial’ background (Thatcher was still Oxford-educated, but she remained firmly opposed to the ‘establishment’ as she saw it).
Her nickname – the ‘Iron Lady’ – was given to her by a Soviet journalist in the 1970s in relation to her comments on the Iron Curtain: however, those back home deemed it an appropriate assessment of her character and the name has stuck ever since.
The Queen and the Iron Lady
Some palace commentators referred to Thatcher’s obsessive punctuality – reportedly, she arrived 15 minutes early to her meeting with the Queen every week – and almost exaggerated deference. The Queen is said to have always kept her waiting, arriving at the appointed time. Whether this was a deliberate power play or simply down to the monarch’s busy schedule is debatable.
Thatcher’s notorious ‘We have become a grandmother’ comment, where she used the first person plural normally removed for monarchs, has also been much debated.
Stylists have also commented on the fact that Thatcher’s wardrobe, particularly her gloves, suits and handbags, are very close in similar in style to the Queen’s. Whether this remains an unsurprising coincidence for two women of nearly the same age in the public eye, or a deliberate attempt by Thatcher to emulate the Queen is down to individual assessment.
Thatcher’s complex relationship with the South African apartheid government was also said to have dismayed the Queen. Whilst Thatcher was anti-apartheid and played an important role in agitating to bring the system to an end, her continued communications and anti-sanctions with the South African government were said to have displeased the Queen.
Whilst many argue it is near impossible to know what the two women really thought of one another, gossip would have the world believe these two powerful women found working together something of a strain – both perhaps unused to having another powerful woman in the room.
Thatcher’s own memoirs, which remain relatively closed about her weekly trips to the palace, do make the comment that “stories of clashes between two powerful women were just too good not to make up.”
Given the Queen’s role as a figure of national unity, it is unsurprising that many perceive the Queen to have been uncomfortable with many of Mrs Thatcher’s policies and actions. The common trope of the monarch as a benign figure looking over their subjects with an almost parental concern may or may not bear out in practice, but it could not be further from the Iron Lady’s politics.
Thatcher was unafraid of stoking division and vilification in the press: rather than courting approval, she actively sought to pursue policies and make statements which would rile her opponents and further gain the admiration of her supporters. As the first female Prime Minister, there was certainly something to prove, even if this was rarely admitted to.
Thatcher was elected, and therefore expected, to turn round the economy and transform Britain: the kind of changes enacted, and their scale, would always have vocal critics. Despite this, her historic 3 terms as PM show she garnered plenty of support with the electorate, and as many will attest to, it is not a politician’s job to be liked by everyone.
Both women were a product of their position – benign monarch and strong-willed Prime Minister – and it is hard to separate their personalities from their roles to some extent. The relationship between the Queen and her Prime Ministers is unique – precisely what went on behind closed doors in the palace will never be known.
To the grave
The abrupt ousting of Thatcher from her position in 1990 is said to have shocked the Queen: Thatcher was turned on publicly by her former Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe, and subsequently faced a leadership challenge from Michael Heseltine which eventuallly compelled her to resign.
Following Thatcher’s eventual death in 2013, the Queen broke protocol to attend her funeral, an honour only previously afforded one other Prime Minister – Winston Churchill. Whether this was out of solidarity with a fellow female leader, or a glimpse of a much warmer relationship than generally imagined, is something that will almost certainly never be known – in either case, it was a powerful testament to the Iron Lady.